MANY a person has at the very start missed his true vocation in life, but has discovered it later on. Henry Bell was one of them.
At thirteen he was apprenticed to a stonemason, and not till three years afterwards did he fully make up his mind that he had chosen the wrong calling.
The years spent with hod, mallet and trowel, however, were not wasted. In that time he learned by experience the virtue of patience in industry, and mastered a craft.
When he was about sixteen years of age he went to be a millwright, and from the very day on which he entered this sphere a life full of new possibilities opened up to him.
He had now full scope for his inventiveness, and before very long his uncle perceived that he had a workman of rare ability.
The training now received was an invaluable one to the inventor; indeed, among the millwrights of that generation were to be found the brightest intellects that the country contained, and Bell made the most of his opportunities.
He was not content with merely mastering the problems of his profession, but thought things out for himself, and before he was twenty was the originator of more than one invention of real utility.
After serving his time he went to Bo’ness to get some knowledge of ship-modelling with Messrs Shaw & Hart, and in 1787 he worked with James Inglis, engineer at Bellshill, to improve his training in mechanics.
The young man dimly foresaw that enormous developments were possible in shipbuilding, and he took enthusiastically to the work of ship-modelling.
In this special line he made for himself quite a local reputation, and as an all round mechanical engineer he was an easy first in all the workshops he was called to serve in.
It was at this point of Bell’s life that a most important thing happened.
He found employment in London with the celebrated engineer John Rennie, who, like himself, began life as a millwright.
Rennie was then building up for himself a splendid reputation.
He had been called to undertake the sole direction of the construction and fitting up of the Albion Mills, London, and the ingenious improvements he effected in the connecting wheel work were so striking that he at once rose to the front rank of his profession.
It was indeed a great stride forward for the young workman to be admitted to a position of prominence with such a master, for Rennie prided himself in the thoroughness of the work he turned out.
In a few years Bell returned to Glasgow, a full equipped workman. He was now absorbed with his master idea.
He saw the Charlotte Dundas work her paddles in the Forth and Clyde Canal, and subsequently inspected the vessel with Robert Fulton.
Twice Bell applied unsuccessfully to the British Admiralty for support and assistance. The second refusal was made in the face of Lord Nelson’s strong advice to the contrary.
“My Lords,” he said, “if you do not adopt Mr Bell’s scheme, other nations will, and in the end vex every vein of this empire. It will succeed, and you should encourage Mr Bell.”
In 1800 Bell removed to Helensburgh where his wife, a woman of great energy, undertook the superintendence of the public baths in addition to the management of the principal inn, while her husband prosecuted his favourite scheme.
So quietly and with so little ostentation did he follow out his work that Britain rubbed its eyes in astonishment when the Comet made her appearance on the Clyde.
Her trial trip took place amidst intense excitement, and proved a complete success. The mercantile and mechanical world combined to do honour to the inventor, and from every quarter of the world scientific men came to see the Comet in action, while Edward Morris, in a twenty-verse poem, wrote—
A mighty host assembl’d there,
From city, village, hamlet, glen,
From hill and dale — the brave, the fair,
Bright maidens, matrons, gallant men —
Came to behold that scheme sublime,
Whose fruits now reach to every clime.
The Comet moves — Dumbarton’s rock
Displays its front amid the storm —
She rides, nor heeds the tempest’s shock,
A fairy thing, a beauteous form;
She triumphs on that trying day,
While shouts of joy burst on her way.
Port-Glasgow, Greenock, now behold
The bar which baffled wind and wave;
And Helensburgh, whose flags so bold
Were rais’d on high to Bell the brave
And his fam’d Comet, which had won
Renown afar, from sun to sun.
Bell, being a modest man, felt he had only done a small part in the great engineering revolution that lay close ahead, and he lived to see a great mechanical awakening on the lines he had laid down.
In 1815 a steamboat made a passage from Glasgow to London, and five years later steam packets were established between Holyhead and Dublin. Bell, however, persisted in maintaining that there were but preliminary canters in the great race.
As he said to the brother of Donald Macleod —
“Danny, tak’ my word for it; this is only the beginning of the uses that steam engines will be put to in the way of conveyin’ passengers; if ye leeve lang, ye’ll see them fleein’ an’ bizzin’ aboot on land, w’ croods o’passengers ag their tail, lively as a spittle loupin’ alang a tailor’s het ‘goose’.”
According to ‘The Story of Helensburgh’, our town was incorporated a Burgh of Barony in 1802, but up till 1830 it consisted of a row of whitewashed houses fronting the sea, with a few straggling villas behind them. In these days there was slow progress.
“Things were well enough as they were; they would improve themselves; where was the use of meddling? Henry Bell, the first Provost, held a different view, and acted upon it.
“But for him Helensburgh might have been green fields and unclaimed bog. He was a man of energy and enterprise. He was a man of many schemes outwith the building of boats.
“He had liberal ideas of what was necessary for the prosperity of a young community.
“Amongst others was the introduction of water, the erection of public markets in the Square, the laying out of future streets and crescents, but he lacked the means of carrying them out, and the public was apathetic.”
Bell retired from active service at the age of sixty, but in his retirement he was not inactive. He spent his days in the quieter pursuit of the ideals that filled his mind during life, and he gave freely of the results to those who could make the best of them.
Up to the very last it was his chiefest delight to move about among the crowded wharves, and to watch the rapid increase in the volume of British shipping.
No sound was so welcome to his ears as the throbbing of the steamers’ engines, and no friends were so dear to him as were the marine engineers.
Gratitude has always been an attribute of a noble nature, and Henry Bell possessed this quality in an unstinted degree. He was never unmindful of any kindness shown to him.
Specially grateful and kind-hearted was he to all who had been associated with him in his great enterprise, and in Row Churchyard we find proof of this in a tombstone he erected on the grave of Comet skipper Captain Robert Bain.
Bell died at the comparatively early age of 63.
- From a supplement to the Helensburgh Times, 4th September 1912.